America to roll out the welcome mat

24 Nov 2008

The combination of a bigger budget, 1,000 additional immigration officers and a new hospitality campaign is expected to overhaul the prevailing negative image that international visitors have of American airports. Since 9/11, tourism to the US has experienced a beating as security took precedence over increasing visitor arrivals.

“You will soon see a definite change in attitude,” Bruce Bommarito, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the Travel Industry Association of the United States of America (TIA), the umbrella group bringing together over 80 travel and tourism organisations, told Business Traveller. “Having that extra staff is really going to help. You will be seeing shorter immigration queues in the (near) future.”

Bommarito predicted changes would be noticeable around mid-2009, saying the fresh immigration recruits were currently receiving training, part of which included customer relations. “Airports in the US are going to be friendlier places.”

Shortage of personnel has led to lengthy visitor processing, and the new goal the TIA executive said was to accomplish that within 30 minutes.

Besides lobbying with the US government for improving the arrival environment, TIA has also been instrumental in helping put into place the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), which takes effect on January 12, 2009 and further streamlines entry into the US for travellers from Visa Waiver countries. (From this date, it will be mandatory for all travellers who fall under this category to apply online, prior to travel to the US. In most cases, applicants receive an instant decision, and it will be valid for two years or until the applicant’s passport expires. For more details, see News, 14/11/08.)

Bommarito said they were working to add 13 more names to the list of Visa Waiver countries.

With the easing of visa regulations for Chinese travelers since November 2007, US state boards and tourism players have been going all out to woo this growing market. Said Bommarito: “China’s economy is (still) so strong, the fear of overstaying visitors is less. Last year, 80 percent of the visa applications were granted.”

Bommarito led the largest US delegation to attend the China International Travel Market, which took place from November 20 to 23 in Shanghai. Some 150 booths showcased not only the well-known gateways of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas (who naturally brought “Elvis”), but states with much to offer as well such as New Mexico and Colorado. “We also want the Chinese traveller to explore points beyond the big cities,” Bommarito said.

TIA members have held several meetings these past months with Chinese tourism officials to better understand the needs of this particular outbound clientele, which Bommarito said was growing at the annual rate of 22 percent.

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Margie T Logarta

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